'Caring is cool': Craig and Marc Kielburger have always had a knack for saying the nicest things

'Caring is cool': Craig and Marc Kielburger have always had a knack for saying the nicest things

National Post


As he has told it countless times to his admirers, the legend of Craig Kielburger the child philanthropist begins on Easter Sunday, 1995, in a village just north of Lahore.

That was when men linked to the lucrative Pakistani carpet trade rolled up on a group of boys riding bikes and used a shotgun to assassinate Iqbal Masih, 12, a baby-faced Christian boy whose family had sold him into slavery at a carpet mill at age four, but he escaped and became a global inspiration in the fight against child labour as leader of the Bonded Labour Liberation Front of Pakistan.

Reading a newswire report on this atrocity back in Thornhill, Ontario, Craig was also 12, a young Catholic boy who played soccer and looked up to his high achieving older brother Marc, a teenaged environmental activist who let little Craig tag along to meetings.

Something had to be done about the exploitation of children, Craig decided, and children were just the people to do it. So he told Iqbal’s story to his class at school. Then he asked who was with him in this newborn fight.

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“Eleven hands shot up, and FtC (Free The Children, now called WE Charity) was born,” wrote Craig, now 37, in one of his dozen books.

He started giving speeches, such as to the Ontario Federation of Labour in November 1995, when he criticized the Canadian government’s position that human rights and international trade were separate issues because Canada is “not the world’s Boy Scout.”

“Well, I’m a Boy Scout,” Craig said, charmingly, for a kid.

That winter he followed former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to India, badgered him into a meeting, and stole the limelight right out from under his nose. People loved it. Craig quickly became a recurring figure in the society pages, and started turning up in elite talking shops, like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He was the youngest ever to do all sorts of things, including to be offered a government advisory position by Chrétien, which he refused but offered to continue advising.

Marc, at the time, was at Harvard for his undergrad, studying international relations.

It was a good time to be young. In 2000, The Economist favourably reported on Craig’s argument against children’s exclusion from policymaking, and his comparison of child empowerment then to women’s empowerment a century before. Craig used the then-buzzy term “affluenza” to describe his message that children in rich countries are not given enough responsibilities, while in poor countries they get too much.

Children were all the rage in governance circles. “Why not a child governor-general?” columnist Gerald Owen wrote later in National Post , mentioning both Craig and Hannah Taylor, who started the Ladybug Foundation to help homeless people when she was aged eight in 2004, met a couple of prime ministers and raised millions of dollars, then wound it up last year before starting law school.

“The feeling that the adult world has dropped the ball is evident on every page,” wrote the children’s novelist Gordon Korman in 1999, reviewing Free The Children, Craig’s first book. “Equally prominent is the belief that, with enlightened support, kids can leap into that breach.”

Thirteen-year-old boys don’t last. Columnist Heather Mallick found Craig “positively grizzled” at age 17 in 2000, when he settled a libel suit against Saturday Night magazine for more than $300,000, over an article titled The Most Powerful 13-year-old in the World, that Craig said contained false statements.

Today, Craig has a secondary school in Milton, Ont., named for him, Home of the Spartans. In a promotional video, adult Craig mentions the school’s ME to WE club and shows pictures of students at an event holding signs saying “I AM WE,” saying this club helps inspire CKSS students and build their résumés.”

Free The Children was a good idea at the right time. It coincided with a global interest in child labour and the perils of globalization, a debate in which Canadians such as Naomi Klein figured prominently. This was the age of “the world needs more Canada,” the punchy tourism slogan that has since become a marketing cliché.

A child’s resistance to injustice against children landed in that world like a gospel. Craig “positioned Iqbal Masih as a kind of martyr figure in FtC lore and has tried to use his death to save other children from the same fate,” according to a recently published academic study of Free the Children. “At the beginning of WE Day events it has become traditional to tell the story of Masih and re-enact Kielburger’s change-making moment of rallying his classmates behind his cause.”

This cause, now the subject of national political scandal, was to promote empathy so intensely that it became “a cult of cookie bakers,” as one young man involved with Free the Children described it to the researchers.

Sharday Mosurinjohn, a Queen’s University assistant professor in School of Religion, and Emma Funnell-Kononuk, a graduate student and elementary school teacher who has been involved with WE events, have been studying its spiritual aspects. They describe it a “new secular spiritual movement,” or NSSM, which deliberately connects it to the category of “new religious movements,” an academic sociological concept popularly known in the context of cults and “alternative spiritualities” that arose in the post-war “seeking culture.”

They argue WE meets all five proposed criteria proposed to define new religious movements: a claim to esoteric knowledge, loose organization, charismatic leadership, and “ecstatic or transfiguring experience.” The latter can be seen in the WE Day arena shows.

But it is not a neo-revival of a previous tradition, nor is it overtly religious, although the Kielburgers claim inspiration from world religions, such as the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama, who has encouraged their compassion, the charitable impulse in Islam, Judaism, and others.

The movement lets young participants experience the “secularly sacred,” Mosurinjohn and Funnell-Kononuk write, to live it in their actions and emotions, and to wear it on their clothing, especially the Kenyan-made “rafiki” bracelets they sell in schools. (Rafiki is Swahili for “friend” and was also the name of a mandrill character in The Lion King.)

Craig studied peace and conflict at the University of Toronto and took a York University executive MBA, finishing in 2009, the year after the brothers launched Me to We, a company that sells socially responsible products and facilitates voluntourism, while donating a portion of profits to WE Charity.

Craig is married to Leysa Cerswell-Kielburger, a psychologist focused on care of marginalized communities who works with the Centre for Mindfulness, and a co-founder of WE Well-Being, which offers mental health workshops, and hosts a podcast with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.

Marc, 43, is married to Roxanne Joyal, the CEO of Me to We who is, like Marc, a former Rhodes Scholar.

The brothers’ parents are Fred and Theresa, both teachers and real estate investors in Toronto, who contributed office space in the early years.

Both are charismatic, but in different ways. On camera, Craig always seems to be moving. He does a shoulder waggle as he talks, which sometimes ripples upwards into a head bobble, suggestive of bouncy informality. Marc is more stolid, always smiling, but mostly stationary.

Marc has a posh hint of the mid-Atlantic in his accent, moulded and mellowed by his Harvard and Oxford years of study. Craig speaks more obviously like a suburban Torontonian, with the faintest memory, in occasional blended syllables and slipped consonants, of a youthful hearing-related speech problem.

Both say the nicest things.

They use the language of spirituality, with poetic elements that describe Me to We as a “growing wave,” and a philosophy of life in which teachers are meant to encourage “WE thinking” in children.

“Intriguingly for us,” the Queen’s researchers write, selectively quoting the Kielburgers, “this is supposed to be done through an initial ‘call to action’ which ‘transforms’ and ‘enlightens’ participants. After ‘awakening,’ participants then live out ‘the ME to WE philosophy’ through the values of belonging, connectedness, community, helping and wellbeing, all of which are ‘integral’ to a particular concept of spirituality endorsed by the Kielburgers.”

The problem the WE charity aims to solve in 2020, the authors suggest, is actually spiritual impoverishment. The answer, as ever, is empathy. “Caring is cool,” as the WE slogan goes. It means changing “values, beliefs, attitudes, and yes, daily decisions,” as the Kielburgers describe the scope of the WE philosophy. This, wrote the brothers, can “work miracles, almost literally.”

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